Wednesday, 15 July 2009

Review - Real England

Travelling can be a delight: meeting new people and new locations, seeing – in the words of Willie Nelson – things that I may never see again. Travel gives perspective by showing you diverse parts of the world, different experiences, and varied ways of living. But increasingly everything in Britain seems similar. Pubs have basically the same menu across the country (steak, haddock, scampi, or the token Italian dish) and the same few beers in every bar. Every village across England and Scotland has a supermarket with a familiar layout selling familiar brands. Tescos and Sainsburys are copied and pasted across the country.

In Real England, Paul Kingsnorth examines how the homogenisation of culture is causing us to lose important things – things without economic or political value but which are important nonetheless. The book doesn’t hold to the traditional canon of ‘liberal values’ and for this reason it could appeal to people across the political spectrum. Whether we occupy the Right or the Left, the book begs us to encourage diversity of food, drink, places, shops, and people.

The book covers a lot of ground and raises a lot of good questions. It considers topics from the benefits of an English parliament to why only wealthy retirees can afford to live in the country now; from the sins of the supermarket chains to the 10,000+ varieties of apple to be found in this green and pleasant land; from real ale to Chinatowns. Real England asks why we are destroying anything that doesn’t increase market share or return an investment. It tells us that there are more important things that the pursuit of profitability: diversity, character, sense of place, nostalgia, whimsy, freedom to live our own lives. Real England surveys this unique country and asks why we are allowing that uniqueness to be taken away.

An important lesson to be taken from the book is that all people are different: we don’t all want the same lifestyle or, in Claude Lévi-Strauss’ words, the same dish served to us every day. Some of us don’t want to live in an inner-city apartment drinking Bacardi Breezers off a glass-top table while watching Sky TV – some of us want to sit outside a country pub drinking a local whisky and reading a book. Some of us don’t want the lives that we see on TV – some of us want to carve our own path. Some of us don’t care about the acquisition of money – some of us want peace and quiet. Yet we are funnelled down a set path because the corporate executives and media moguls with all the development power want the former kind of life: the marginalised few are told that they should want it and are forced to live it. Because those who don’t buy into the capitalist system sought solitude and peace rather than power and attention, the urban environment and boardroom attitude expands. “Whenever something is wrong, something is too big.” – Leopold Kohr.

The book makes you question your assumptions. We are routinely told that progress = good, stasis = bad – ‘a rolling stone gathers no moss’. But what is the reasoning behind this? Preservation of conservative values (with a small c) can be beneficial if there is something of value to them. Does constant march towards the future and away from the past guarantee happiness, fulfilment, eudaimonia? Or could George Orwell have been right that maybe our grandparents were better people than us?

Real England is a fascinating and disturbing book, no matter which political party you ally yourself with. It doesn’t have to be an indictment of capitalism: I just happen to read things from my liberal socialist perspective. All it asks of the reader is whether we want all the towns in Britain to be the same. If not, then we need to take action: support local businesses, encourage difference, and endorse community interests over corporate interests.

Monday, 13 July 2009

"Lessons from the Playground."

The biggest shock about News International’s phone-hacking is that no-one is shocked. Apart from The Guardian and the BBC, no-one is giving the story anything more than perfunctory coverage. On Saturday, The Guardian ran an article giving a sad appraisal of the immoral tactics journalists use on a routine basis and on Sunday, David Yelland smugly told Andrew Marr that the allegations would blow over in a week. This lack of media coverage stems from a number of possibilities: that the tragedies in Afghanistan have more precedence from a public interest standpoint; that the press is already familiar with underhand journalistic techniques; that, as The Independent suggests, phone-hacking is old news; or that News International owns the papers that would report on it (The Times, The Sun, and News of the World).

Whatever the reason, the lack of media outcry has affected a lack of public outcry. After a pop singer died, a thousand Facebook groups sprang into existence. After the G20 riots and police abuse, every liberal blogger took to the keyboard. After the BNP gained two North England seats, protestors marched the streets and threw eggs. Now the public is reminded that a private company spies on the public and covers it up – nothing.

This is because we are used to being bullied. We are the children in the playground who have become inured to the intimidation of bullies and who now consent to a beating every so often rather than bother to fight back. We have forgotten that we shouldn’t let bullies intimidate us with their power. We’re afraid.

We are bullied by large corporations and conglomerates so much that we have become immune to it. Here are two examples:

In 2004, Tesco built a store in Stockport that was 20% larger than the planning permission allocated. It operated for two years with an illegal building before the Tame Valley Planning Committee approved retrospective planning permission. No action was taken against Tesco.

From the 1970s, there have been numerous murders of Coca-Cola bottling-plant employees in Guatemala and Columbia – employees with a connection to the worker’s unions. It is alleged that Coca-Cola hired paramilitary mercenaries to assassinate union leaders. A fact-finding delegation discovered that “To date, there have been a total of 179 major human rights violations of Coca-Cola's workers, including nine murders. Family members of union activists have been abducted and tortured. Union members have been fired for attending union meetings. The company has pressured workers to resign their union membership and contractual rights, and fired workers who refused to do so.” Coca-Cola continues to dominate the soft-drink market.

The real tragedy is not that the public accepts intimidation by big business but approves it. The public accept entrepreneurism and stand-up for the free-market economy which enslaves them. “Big businesses have earned their power and can do what they like with it.” The public watches Dragon’s Den and The Apprentice and idolises Jack Cohen, Alan Sugar, and Richard Branson: archetypal ‘self-made men’ whose successes prove that we live in a meritocracy. The public defend large corporations because they have been told that if they work really hard, they too could achieve massive success.

The truth is clear to anyone who examines society: that we do not live in a meritocracy. Hard work is only one factor among many other entirely contingent factors that govern success: luck, natural talents, personal connections, position of birth. There are many small business owners who work just as hard as the Rupert Murdochs and the Bill Gates but cannot succeed because they are naturally not as intelligent or as charismatic.

Free-market economics is based on the premise that everyone is born equal. It’s a lovely dream but it’s not true. People are born with different natural talents and skills and this causes inequality. Our current economic system illogically favours successful businesses and individuals who already have wealth, power, and talent. John Rawl’s Second Principle of Justice is that Social and economic inequalities are to be arranged so that:

a) they are to be of the greatest benefit to the least-advantaged members of society

b) offices and positions must be open to everyone under conditions of fair equality of opportunity”

In other words, the inevitable inequalities of society are to be such that that they benefit the least-advantaged (the poor, the working class, etc.) rather than the most-advantaged (the rich, the upper class, etc.). Justice as Fairness.

The fact that we are no longer shocked by horrendous abuses of power like media conglomerates hacking into peoples’ private communication shows that we have forgotten the basic principles of fairness which governed our lives in the playground. The greatest trick the economic bullies ever pulled was convincing us that what they do is fair. We need to remember what the teachers taught us about the playground: that bullying is not to be tolerated and that we ought to share.

Monday, 6 July 2009

"Why rush?"

Last week I was camping in the hills of Sutherland in the north of Scotland. Amid the escape from the shackles of routine, I discovered the peace, tranquillity, and pleasure of a slowed-down existence.

Making a hot beverage when camping is a long process. It involves walking to the water source, filling the kettles, bringing them back to camp sloshing water over your pant legs, setting up the stove on level ground, starting and lighting the gas, keeping the wind from blowing out the flame, balancing the kettle on top, waiting for it to boil, filling a cup with coffee granules or a tea bag, and then adding the water/sugar/milk – all of this while outside exposed to innumerable insects, birds, and the whims of the weather.

Rather than devalue the final product, the lengthy procedure of outdoor brewing enhances the hot drink produced. The slow deliberateness of doing anything without modern amenities saturates the final product with a sense of triumph and achievement which serves to make it a much sweeter reward. It brings to mind the philosophy of Tolkien’s Ents: they do not say or do anything unless it is worth taking a long time over. Slowing down mundane tasks gives a sense of serenity. When it take fifteen minutes to do something rather than the one minute that you are used to, it makes you really consider what it is that you are doing. It allows you to appreciate the whole miraculous process and its place in the larger process called life. It allows you to think by giving you time and a stillness of mind: commodities sorely lacking in much of modern society.

The ethos of the modern world is to rush and get things done as quickly as possible. A hot drink is produced by either flicking on a kettle, or having a machine spit brownish water into a plastic cup, or going to Starbucks. The internet causes us to desire information quicker than at any time in human history: the idea of strolling to a reference library to verify some obscure fact about Queen Victoria seems ludicrous when Wikipedia is ten seconds away. Modern appliances allow us to cook, clean, and look after ourselves quickly and via an automated process that allows us to go do other things.

But what is the telos behind all this haste? What is the goal? Do all these speeded-up processes bring happiness or satisfaction or achievement? When examined closely, it seems that all the speed of modern convenience is simply speed for speed’s sake. The paradox of modern living, as identified by Bertrand Russell, is that although we have invented fabulous machines to do work for us, we still persist in filling our days with labour. We do not take advantage of the time gained by speeding up our processes: rather, we fill our time with more processes and more busywork. Machines that were supposed to give us leisure only created a vacuum which humans filled with work.

I visited two distilleries in Scotland. The first was the Glenmorangie distillery in Tain. Glenmorangie is jointly owned by two French companies and produces a massive amount of different varieties of malt whisky every week: approximately 12 casks a day, maybe more. The second was the Edradour distillery in Pitlochry. Edradour is an independent business and the smallest distillery in Scotland. They produce 12 casks a week and their whisky can only really be found at their shop or in the immediate area. Glenmorangie make more income but it really doesn’t matter. Edradour is traditional, unique, interesting, and produces better tasting whisky. For all its speed, what has Glenmorangie gained apart from money?

The slowness of life outdoors brings into contrast the speed of civilised life and makes you realise how much free time we really have the potential for. It makes you realise that you don’t have to rush around: no-one is judging you by how fast you can get the ironing done or make a cup of coffee. You’re free to take your time over these things. You can spend time doing the crossword or reading a long article. Technological advancement has given us the time to do all manner of wonderful things and so we can all afford to relax a little. Getting away from the morality of the city teaches you the morality of the country: that there is nothing wrong with taking life at a leisurely pace.

Sit back, stop checking your emails, enjoy life, and appreciate a good view now and then.